Sunday, September 25, 2022

Lexicon: Themes and Modular Jams

Here is a key to some of the terminology we will be using in our exploration of Dark Star. There are several themes that reappear in various versions, including both modular jams and musical themes that reappear in several Dark Stars.


Some of these themes were named by Light Into Ashes of the Grateful Dead Guide; these will be marked "LIA." Others were named by ourselves, or are of unknown origin.

Introduction Theme
This appears at the beginning of most Dark Stars, particularly when they do not emerge from another song or ongoing jam.


Main Theme
This appears near the beginning of Dark Star in many early versions, but eventually it comes to introduce the verse.

1971-10-31 4:22

153. 1972-12-11

153092 Winterland 34:27

Main theme at 16:47.
First verse at 17:21.
Tiger at 32:23.
Goes into Stella Blue.

The introduction section is, as it often is around this time, relaxed and quite mesmerizing. All the string players are loud here, but I don’t hear Keith at first. The other three all function as lead instruments, weaving in and out of each other’s lines in a way that pushes the attentive listener’s mind into a blissful overload. At 3:11, the piano finally joins the mix to euphonious effect. A swarm begins at 3:38, and when we come out the other end, there’s a syncopated groove working.

The jam is much the same as it was, only now it swings. This peters out by 4:55 or so, and now it feels like a transitional stage. Lesh and Weir are eager to get funky again, but Kreutzmann hangs back. They build their way back until the drums fall into a groove again at 6:02; they spin it out until hitting another transition point at 7:03. Lesh ties it through with an ostinato, and Garcia launches some rolling triplets; the jam resides in the tension between these two for quite a while from here.

At 8:41 Garcia alludes to Sputnik in a passage that lasts for 15 seconds or so. The music is getting beefier, with Godchaux quite busy now. Lesh plays a few runs through Feelin’ Groovy starting at 9:34, but they’re not going there. As he climbs into a higher register at 9:45, Garcia drops into an ostinato lower down before they again switch places.

The band is seriously cooking now, and the intensity keeps increasing. At 10:55 Garcia starts a simple pattern that they rally around. He tops it off with a screaming lead, and then from 11:32 they float back to earth. They slow the tempo a bit, and some jerky, syncopated chopping follows; Garcia strikes up a catchy riff, and then spins out some leads while the band extrapolates. By 14:25 it seems the ideas are coming thick and fast from all directions. They reach a peak around a repeated Garcia figure starting at 15:04, and as we crest Garcia starts to signal for the theme at 15:30 or 15:47, and they cut the tempo down and glide into it. Garcia waits a minute to play the melody, and they slow the tempo down even more as they head for the verse. Slowly sung, the verse features Keith’s watery wah licks, much like the last one.

There’s a little crescendo after the concluding licks, and what pulse there is seems to slow even further. We find ourselves in space, with Garcia playing eerie squalls amid big tom flourishes. Doomy bass licks and feedback engulf the scene. Lesh comes to the fore, and his playing is deliberate and spacy, with no hints of Philo Stomp here. Both guitar players are layering feedback, until at 23:48 Godchaux starts playing some staccato muffled notes and it turns into a conversation between him and Lesh. (I initially thought this was Weir, and it is difficult to tell as for a long time this sounds like a guitar. Someone can correct me if I have it twisted, but after rewinding a few times I’m pretty sure it’s Keith dampening the piano strings somehow.)

Godchaux increases the pace, still muffling his notes, and Lesh responds with muffled passages of his own. At 25:45 Keith kicks on the wah, continuing in the same vein. Garcia comes back, also with the wah engaged, and throws in some eerie sounds as Kreutzmann plays a primal beat. This is absolutely unique and riveting music, and without any clear precedent, as far as I can recall.

The muffly jam is driving toward a peak, and at 27:55 Keith lets the strings ring out a little more; by 28:20 this jam finally seems to have run its course, though. They seem to consider a drum break, but then Garcia, who throughout the previous jam has been confined to a supporting role, starts to assert himself more. At 29:45 he seems to momentarily think of Bach, and then he starts to edge toward the Tiger. The band again gels, if in an oblique and eerie fashion. The lead-up to the Tiger is another astounding jam. They really pick up steam at 31:40, as they push for the finish line; Garcia finally unleashes the Tiger at 32:23, and the whole thing comes to its vicious denouement.

At 33:52 Jerry seems to remember his previous aside (29:45) and drops into Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring before starting to strum Stella Blue (which is, incidentally, one of the best versions of the year).

What can be said about this version? This is one of the greatest pieces of music the Grateful Dead ever created, an absolute masterpiece. The first half is varied, by turns soulful and driving, and does everything you want a Dark Star jam to do. After a few versions where they seemed to struggle after the verse, the unique, creative second half is utterly successful here. This is what it’s all about.

What was said

Friday, September 16, 2022

152. 1972-11-26

9248 San Antonio 25:12

Main theme at 9:26.
First verse at 10:28.
Feelin’ Groovy at 18:37.
Tiger at 21:55.
Goes into Me and Bobby McGee.

The beginning jam here is a thing of beauty. Everyone plays off each other, and (as so often happens) Garcia’s lines prominently float along on top but are far from the only thing on which to focus. After a gorgeous series that alludes to the theme a few times, at 2:18 Garcia plays a stentorian line on the bass strings that we have heard before—the first instance I know of is at 2:40 on 1968-08-23, and this lick also appears in the intro jam on 1973-11-11. Here it is more extended than anywhere else it appears, though.

The jam opens out a bit from here—Lesh starts fishing around for funky licks. At 3:11 Jerry stretches a note which he lets ooze around for the next 30 seconds, and then the jam alternates between bouncing and elongating passages. Lesh’s ostinato from 4:05 sets off Godchaux and Garcia’s acending lines until Jerry reaches a repeating note at 4:25 and the band comes to a peak. At 4:42 he hits a higher plateau, and then they take it down and regroup.

Phil strikes up a jazzy riff at 5:17, but it doesn’t lead anywhere, as they are still coming off the peak. At 5:40 Garcia hits some tumbling triplets and Godchaux flutters around him; at 6:10 a new groove emerges, as Lesh and Kreutzmann lay down a laid back groove which Keith offsets with staccato 8th notes. This is something Garcia can work with, clearly, and he weaves in some Dark Star melodies. At 7:40 Keith starts a triplet figure and Garcia quickly picks it up, setting off a unique interlude. This is a passage that is, broadly speaking, in the Sputnik universe, although it’s not much like anything else they’ve played in this vein.

There’s a whole lot going on in this jam, and it’s difficult to narrate. It needs to be heard, in any case, as it is absolutely prime Grateful Dead.

At 8:53 Garcia starts repeating a galloping lick and Godchaux starts playing the wah. It seems like it could go somewhere new, but Garcia climbs to the A at 9:26 and comes down on the theme. Lesh doesn’t seem interested right away, but Jerry’s persistent, and they drop into it. As usually happens in this era, this takes us straight to the verse, during which Godchaux continues playing through the wah.

The aftermath is spacey, but it seems to be germinating a jam. At 12:35 Garcia plays the lick JSegal calls “It’s All the Same”; now that he’s pointed it out, it seems ubiquitous. They play for time with some volume knob twiddlery and Lesh’s searching lines; by 14:20 it goes down to nothing, and then Phil takes over; soon Kreutzmann comes back to accompany him.

Lesh seems reluctant to get the Philo Stomp going again, but what he lands on isn’t a million miles away from that, either. The band starts to trickle back in at 16:45. At first it’s all very tentative, but they seem determined to make a go of it, as they never really recovered from this section last time. Garcia’s licks are a little bolder and more committed this time; nevertheless, they seem to be in a holding pattern until Lesh starts Feelin’ Groovy at 18:37.

We’ve had a little bit of space, a Phil section, and a modular jam—the only thing left in their standard second-half bag of tricks is a meltdown, and by about 20:50 it seems clear that’s where this is now heading. They careen into a Tiger jam, which comes to fruition much sooner than usual. By 23:30 they’re already out the back end, and they lean into the atonal jamming for a while longer, until finally Weir kicks off Me and Bobby McGee.

This is another front-loaded Dark Star. The pre-verse stuff here is stellar; in fact, I want to say it’s as good as anything they ever did. The back half is far from bad; in fact, it’s a marked improvement over the previous rendition. The jamming around the Tiger portion is particularly effective. Nevertheless, there seems to be an emerging trend in the second half of Dark Star. The beginning of Dark Star gives them a chord pattern to begin to build a jam from, whereas in the second half they more or less start from nothing. And in the latter part of 1972, they seem to be losing a little bit of facility in creating jams out of nothing. The meltdowns and/or atonal jams are effective, and there are also bass solos and modular jams in their bag of tricks; however, it is becoming more uncommon for them to put together a cohesive improvisation that does not rely on any of the aforementioned strategies. There will certainly be some very notable exceptions, but I my impression is that this overall trend will continue; we'll see if the concentrated, sequential listening to come will dispel this notion.

What was said

Friday, September 9, 2022

151: 1972-11-19

142329 Houston 31:19 (DS 25:40, WS Prelude 5:49)

Main theme at :05 and 11:25.
First verse at 11:39.
Goes into Half Step.

I have chosen to treat the debut of Weather Report Suite: Prelude here as a jam within Dark Star, as it seems to me that’s how it functions here. This is certainly debatable, though.

The main theme comes right out of the opening lick here, and this one gets off to a brisker, more thetic start than some of its peers. Lesh is very loud in the mix, and we are reminded that the melodic burden is his as much as Garcia’s much of the time. At first, they wind around on the upper and lower limits as Weir and Godchaux fill in the texture in the middle. The lines start to get a little blurred at 3:06 when Garcia plays some funky stuff on the lower strings with Lesh above him.

By 3:50 or so, Godchaux is starting to flick on the wah, as he seems wont to do lately. Listen to Lesh at 4:36 deftly pick up on some of the stuff Keith is playing, which sets up a nice moment. The music starts to unspool a little from this point as they loosen up while considering their next moves. Jerry starts to hint at Other One at around 4:45, and this inflects what follows. There’s a bit of excitement when Garcia starts a little roll at 5:43, and then Lesh starts playing an Other One-like figure which Jerry again picks up, but by 6:20 it’s all over and they’re on to something else! The lines get more drawn out here; at 6:48 Lesh starts working in a riff which we’ve heard before, one that is reminiscent of Reggie Workman’s line on Coltrane’s Greensleeves and a precursor to the Elastic Ping Pong jam.

At 8:27 Garcia starts to suggest an approach to the Dark Star theme. At 8:46 Lesh brings his riff back, though; Garcia sounds like he still wants to head for home bass, but he’s game for now; Godchaux is playing wah again. At 10:05 Lesh modulates the riff upward as Garcia plays a tremolo line, and then at 10:20 he bursts out with a high, wailing line that he draws out and twists until it resolves into a repeating two-note call at 10:52 that seems to bring everyone to attention. They pedal for a little bit until, at 11:21, Lesh finally calls for the theme; Garcia is happy to oblige, and he takes it to the verse very quickly.

The post-verse lick recedes and there is a descent into space. It gets down to almost nothing at 14:05, and it stays there for almost a minute, putting us back in 1970. Lesh oozes into the open space with an almost sub-sonic hum until bursting out at 15:01 with some ominous tones which Garcia embellishes with feedback squalls. This is some properly freaky stuff, until Phil tentatively casts about with some riffs and Kreutzmann picks up the beat, and we go from space into a bass and drum session.

This starts to feel a bit aimless to me. At 20:42 Phil seems to start thinking about how he’s going to get the band back, although he reluctant to start up Philo Stomp. At 20:55 he finally gets into something pretty close to the latter, although it’s not quite the same. At 21:23 the band starts to trickle back in, but they seem tentative. Weir wants to play Feelin’ Groovy, but nobody seems ready to commit to it, and it comes in and out at various points. Nothing is happening, and it’s a drag. By 23:00 it finally seems to be coalescing a bit, and there’s the beginnings of a nice little jam here, but it’s still slightly tentative. After about a minute they seem stuck in a rut, but not fully in a groove.

By the 26th minute they seem pretty lost; Lesh even suggests a return to Dark Star, but then Weir starts up his Weather Report riff. Jerry knows it, it seems, but Lesh and Godchaux lay out. When Keith comes in he seems at first like he’s following along. Garcia fades out, Lesh takes a few stabs. When they both start playing together they pretty quickly take it away from Weather Report, so the band may not have learned this yet. It gets back into a space kind of thing, and Garcia wants to go to a meltdown. By 3:15 or so it’s pretty much chaos, of the ramshackle rather than bludgeoning variety. When Kreutzmann finally stops pounding there’s some kind of nice spacey stuff, but they quickly conclude their work is finished and play Half Step.

The first 16 minutes of this are outstanding. Once it gets into the Lesh and Kreutzmann stuff it loses any sense of direction and turns into a dissatisfying mess. 16 great minutes are not chopped liver, by any means, but I can’t say this is a resounding success overall.

What was said:

Friday, September 2, 2022

150. 1972-11-13

105812 KC 32:16 (31:56 actual) (“Dark Star” 22:03, “Philo Stomp” 10:13)

Main theme at 11:22.
First verse at 11:44.
Tiger at 19:25 and (PS) :40.
Philo Stomp at (PS): 1:30.
Feelin’ Groovy at (PS) 7:46.
Goes into Morning Dew.

Here we have an audience recording, and it sounds pretty good in this case. Dark Star kicks off in a mournful mood, with nobody hitting it too hard. At 1:34 Garcia gets into some pinch harmonics, repeating a couple notes for about 30 seconds and then spinning out a lead from there that still sounds like a holding pattern; the task seems to be to create a mood rather than to tell a story. The skein stretches gradually, revealing little knots of intensity. The peak that begins at 3:34 is brief, leads into a lull. The band peaks vertically, so to speak—the music is at all points a tableau or cross section, rather than a progression of ideas.

Another peak comes in at 4:30 and this one empties out into a lurching backbeat from Kreutzmann and some chiming rhythm from Weir. At 5:40 is another peak, or perhaps rather a plateau. As we reach the edge, Garcia threatens a melody, and then drops into a rolling arpeggio passage instead, earning some applause. Although the sequence of notes is different, this could almost be labeled Sputnik. Garcia plays with dynamics, phasing in and out, until 7:50 brings more Dark Star notes, but before this goes too far Garcia starts in with the volume knob in order to keep the atmospheric approach alive. It gets pretty quiet here, but Kreutzmann has a new vibe brewing, and as he lightly but firmly brings the backbeat in Garcia starts flurrying at 9:15. The band is light, agile and rather quiet here.

As is sometimes the case, I am getting Weir and Godchaux mixed up here, but they both seem to have some kind of wah-wah sound going, although Keith started this one out with straight piano. Listen at 10:50 as Lesh is starting to bump up against Garcia from below, doing the funky-jazzy riffing of which he is so fond in this era. This seems to light a fire, and at 11:00 they are again driving toward a peak, this time in more frenetic fashion. As this gets going there’s a cut that plunges us into the back end of the pre-verse theme section, so I switched over to the Hanno version (10089) for this passage—not ideal, so my apologies, but this version sounds better overall. Hanno is also the Bear recording, but there’s a patch at this point, and there’s a really nice little peak there that shouldn’t be missed. The theme starts at 12:32 on the Hanno, and lasts 50 seconds, plus there’s probably another minute or so of the jam before that.

We hear how enthused the crowd is; as the Dead exit the verse there is a rousing cheer. Weir once said that by 1974 they were leaving the audience behind, implying that the long improvisations were not crowd-pleasers. I think that every audience recording we’ve listened to thus far, however, has evidenced a great deal of enthusiasm for Dark Star. Whether this had changed by 1974 is a question I can’t answer with any real confidence; it’s possible that the venues they were playing by then brought in more casual punters.

In any case, the space jam that comes together after the verse elicits more enthusiastic cheers. These are some of the most difficult passages to describe; by now the Dead were masterful at building up these ambient passages that had no real beat or time signature but still have a kind of cohesion and momentum. We get a brief return of Garcia’s tolling effect at 14:33, and everyone gets really weird here in a most pleasing way. While remaining in space, the band coheres and increases the intensity. At 17:15 Garcia starts to build up his line a bit, and one feels it will either lead us out into a jam, or else into a meltdown. This dilemma seems to be resolved in favor of a meltdown at 18:21, as Garcia starts to prefigure a Tiger jam. Lesh and Garcia push it forward while Weir and Godchaux build outward.

The Tiger arrives at 19:25. Godchaux’s piano is titanic, like a turbulent ocean, with Garcia the storm-wracked ship and Lesh the sea monster ascending from the depths. There is calm at 20:45, but they start to build it up again. As the second track (“Philo Stomp”) begins (without a Philo Stomp in sight!) the music is warped, demented; by :40 we’re back in a Tiger jam. No sooner does it peak than Lesh is shifting into Philo Stomp (PS 1:30). Coming out of the Tiger without any bass preliminaries, the effect is remarkable. Garcia, Godchaux and Weir chime right in this time; they almost sound like they know it.

At 3:50 Lesh is ready to try to build out a successor jam. Weir starts a pedalling riff at 4:33, and this turns into a holding pattern. At about 5:00 Garcia seems to be communicating his willingness to play some great leads if the rest of them will only get it together. At 5:19 Weir proposes a two-chord pattern; Lesh approves, and Jerry starts fiddling away. Weir of course abandons the chord pattern at this point, but Garcia is not to be deterred; he ups the intensity, and Kreutzmann approves of this, so he helps drag the rest of them to a howling peak starting at around 6:55. At 7:18 this settles back into another holding pattern, although we are now on a higher plateau and the intensity does not subside.

Lesh breaks us out of this one with Feelin’ Groovy at 7:46. This is a raucous affair, all jittery and cacophonous. They play it almost ridiculously fast, and it’s already over by 9:25. Garcia substitutes another descending riff, and it almost seems like a throwback to 1969, where a modular jam could result in another jam loosely based on the former. It’s not happening this time, though; instead, they go into Morning Dew.

This is a strange and magical half hour. The band at times seems to be getting a little impatient with the Dark Star format, it seems to me; although this is a subtle thing and doesn’t manifest all at once, I think there is such a trend, in any case. Here the first half is almost ambient, and it does seem to cover new ground, at least insofar as they are more committed to that approach here than we’ve heard before. The second half is dominated by space, meltdown/Tiger jamming, and Philo Stomp. The meltdown approach is increasingly becoming the primary mode of post-verse as we get closer to 1973. The two-pronged meltdown in this Dark Star is one of premier instances of the form. A classic rendition.

What was said:

Saturday, August 27, 2022

149. 1972-10-28

20405 Cleveland 27:46

Main theme at :06, 9:31 and 10:51.
First verse at 11:27.
Philo Stomp at 16:50.
Tiger at 25:23.
Goes into Sugar Magnolia.

A little bit of the main theme leads into some volume swells by Garcia, and the Dark Star starts clopping along. Godchaux and Weir open up a bubbly jam space while Lesh and Garcia wander a bit. Kreutzmann is pushing them along (check out his runs at 1:51, 2:16 and 2:33, and 2:47, etc.); he keeps goosing the band, creating forward momentum. In this case, he seems to be leading the jam as much as anyone, and perhaps he inspires the tumbling riff that Garcia unleashes at 4:05, which Keith picks up on, one of many such bursts that drive the jam forward tonight.

From about 4:20 Kreutzmann starts to play a more lurching beat, and again there is a reponse as at 4:43 Lesh puts forth a funky riff, and again Godchaux is right there, embellishing it and pushing it further. At 5:05 Garcia’s chords start to swell up and they all come together with a thrusting beat that raises the pressure again. At 5:55 the band is steaming along and Garcia starts spinning some frenetic lines that turn into another hammering motif at 6:08; Godchaux locks on, and they take it to a sort of peak, and it seems the general trajectory is ever upwards.

The music gets denser and busier. Now Lesh starts a double time pulse at 7:55. They all seem to pull back a little at the same time, and at 8:11Garcia starts a driving chord pattern. This seems to bring everything up another notch, as they alternate between a driving sway and dot-dash pounding until Garcia begins an ascent at 9:21 that leads to high A at 9:23; he tumbles off it into a kind of main theme/Bright Star hybrid. They start to settle into the theme, but there’s a detour at 10:05, a misty little grotto that has hints of a rolling Sputnik jam. This leads us back to the theme, which brings us to a dark and lurching verse. (In a throwback to the ‘60s, Jerry gives a little vibrato shake to “Shall we go…”).

Out the other side, Garcia immediately puts out some spooky vibes with a watery wah effect. While Kreutzmann starts up a deliberate beat, and Lesh adds a deliberate riff, Garcia considers some weird directions. The band swirls down the drain until, at 14:35, Lesh barks out his intentions. Garcia echoes him for a little while, and then Lesh drops out for a bit, leaving Bill and Jerry. As Phil returns, there’s a little bit of space, and everything seems uncertain.

At 16:50, Lesh takes charge and launches Philo Stomp. This proceeds with bass and drums for awhile, but the others trickle back in. When Garcia lays in a distorted lead at around 18:30, Lesh pulls back the riff and reduces it to a thudding fundament, and the jam develops. The Philo Stomp bass riff might be too dominant to leave much room for a band jam, and Lesh’s solution to this seems to work this time—they’re flying along, they don’t seem to want to keep it going for too long. and it already starts to unravel at 20:10.

The jam is sprouting frayed ends all over the place now. At 21:30, Garcia gets ahold of something, and a kind of abstract and choppy funk seems about to emerge, and almost does. Instead, there is more unravelling, until Garcia’s wah at 22:22 unmistakably ratifies what seems to be the only possible direction this can go in, toward a meltdown. Lo and behold, the madness does indeed seem a bit more methodical now that we can identify it with a recognized move, and we arrive at a brief Tiger before everything unravels a little further into an abstract space from which there will be no returning. At the utmost extremity, Weir finally kicks off Sugar Magnolia.

This is one of those Dark Stars where the first and second halves seem to have little to do with one another. Unless, that is, the second half is a kind of riposte to the first—whereas the intro jam kept exploring new ways to push forward, the back 40 is filled with weeds; with the exception of Philo Stomp and the short jam that it catalyzed, there is not much in the way of momentum in the second half of this Dark Star. We find instead a wonderful sprawl, a space where it seems almost gauche to develop one’s ideas overmuch. This is not intended as a knock, though, as this is a powerful rendition.

What was said:

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

148. 1972-10-26

32717 Cincinnati 21:32

Main theme at :06, 14:49 and 15:16.
First verse at 15:37.
Goes into Sugar Magnolia.

This comes out of the embers of Truckin’, with Kreutzmann rolling the toms through the intro lick, and starts with the main theme before quickly diverging with some rather low key jamming. Lesh is practically inaudible at first, which perhaps adds to the lethargic vibe, until he steps up with some rolling licks at 1:18. There’s a strange passage at about 2:48 where Lesh is playing above Jerry, I had to rewind it to figure out who was who, but Garcia’s tone on the bass strings is unmistakable.

Garcia starts a line at 3:21 that slides through the Sputnik tonal pattern at 3:31, then at 3:47 starts to run through the main theme notes, and then skitters off again until at 4:32 he hits the descending pattern we’ve heard a few times lately, so he covers a lot of bases here. At 5:14 there’s another brief quote of the theme; Lesh starts a minor-tinged riff at 5:40 that threatens to break the jam out of its current form, which is rather sleepy but not unpleasing. They fritter away without really leaning into it, until at 7:40 they lock into a rolling pattern which sort of comes in and out for a bit. Suddenly at 8:15 there is conviction, and they start to build a peak, going on to 8:42 when they break back into more straightforward opening-type jam.

This starts to spiral down into more spacey territory by 9:20, with Garcia getting a sound a bit like the “insect weirdness” we used to hear in 1969. They get to a fast weird thing around 10:15, and soon they’re buzzing around like a hive of bees. This doesn’t last long either, though; there’s a brief Sputnik-type thing around 10:51, and the band again seems to be casting about for an anchor. Garcia suggests a frenetic jam, then starts playing a two chord vamp, and Weir picks it up with some chiming country licks at 10:50.

By 12:20 Garcia is playing some licks that are reminiscent of Other One, then goes to another two-chord vamp, and then at 13:18 the music almost collapses as Garcia tunes up. There is no momentum at all now; there’s a little volume knob twiddling, and by 14:10 the whole thing has almost come to a halt. A little Sputnik rolling comes out of this, but it’s quiet and no one really wants to help out. At 14:37 they swing into the main chord pattern, and as the theme sounds we can hope the verse is coming to save us.

They lurch through the verse rather slowly, and as the closing licks die out the band swells and conures an atmosphere that allows us to hope for some good jamming to come. This hope is misplaced, however; they fiddle around for a little while before giving up on this Dark Star entirely. They almost lapse into a drum solo, but never quite relinquish the half-hearted accompaniment they’re giving Kreutzmann, so he does the reasonable thing and stops playing. We’re left with Garcia noodling alone until, mercifully, Weir strikes up Sugar Magnolia. (I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “noodling” before, but for once it feels apt).

This is certainly the worst Dark Star of 1972. I don’t need to tell you that there are engaging moments even here, but overall this one is a failure.

What was said

Thursday, August 18, 2022

147. 1972-10-23

98958 Milwaukee 28:53

Main theme at :06, 10:07, 11:46 and 12:31.
First verse at 12:42.
Goes into Mississippi Half Step.

A horrible recording is all we have of this. I’ll do my best to plow through it. We begin with the main theme, and then Garcia spirals off into some high wandering that sounds like it may have been pretty exciting. The band seems pretty fired up from the outset, although this may partly be an effect of the AUD recording.

There’s a burst from Garcia at 4:03, then a little pause where it seems like they’re gearing up for the main theme, but it is probably too early for that. The instruments are less tightly bound together from this point, and the jam seems like it gets a bit stranger. There’s an intriguing bit from about 5:57 where the band quiets down and sends out rippling waves of sound that get louder and softer, building up to a more aggressive passage shortly thereafter. After this, there are several peaks where the band seems to be generating some power, and Garcia really cuts through the murk at times, even if not much else does. It's difficult to give a cohesive account of all this, due to the sound quality which makes it hard to get a handle on everything that’s going on.

At 10:07 Garcia swings into the main theme for a moment, but it isn’t happening yet. The jam keeps going, ebbing and flowing, tantalizing the listener who’s trying to make sense out of this recording. Jerrry brings back the theme on the high strings at 11:46, and it turns into another kind of descending riff before coming back again at 12:31 and leading right into the verse.

There’s applause after the verse. After the usual riffing, Garcia launches a high line with some pinch harmonics while the band weaves a two-chord pattern. Particularly from just after the 15-minute mark, Godchaux is very active here; it would be nice to be able to better hear his interactions with Garcia, as they are in dialogue much of the time throughout this section.

At about 17:04 Godchaux, who has gotten louder and seems to be using a wah effect, moves into the lead for a while. By 18:30 the music is dense and swirling; Garcia still seems to be absent, or else in the background. We start to hear him again at about 19:10, but he takes a while to get out front again. This jam sounds really crazy! It drops into a groove at about 20:00, but it’s a frenetic one, and there still seems to be lots of atonal weirdness. By 20:30 or so it sounds like Garcia is putting on the wah, and he may see this leading to a meltdown.

It's hard to pinpoint what happens when in all this murk, but the jam increasingly seems like a meltdown now. In any case it’s a crazy jam, and now I find that I would really love to hear a good recording! Lesh is doing some wild descending licks; at 23:40 it seems to have come to a head, as there’s a lull, but then it seems like they were just gathering themselves because shortly thereafter the music rises like a tornado. I don’t hear Garcia doing the usual Tiger thing, but that’s the general idea, and the crowd bursts into applause at 24:50.

The storm is succeeded by a quiet, spacey segment, with feedback and scritching, and Garcia working the volume knob. This turns out to be the last bit of it, as after a couple of minutes Garcia strikes up Half Step and the Dark Star is over.

From what I can glean from the recording, this is a major effort. I need to remind myself of all the recordings with which we have been blessed, but it’s tough when you can tell that something is really good but you can’t properly hear it. This is clearly a great one, but it's difficult to enjoy.

What was said:

Thursday, August 11, 2022

146: 1972-10-18

132378 St. Louis 28:22

Main theme at 9:58.
First verse at 11:31.
Philo Stomp at 22:41.
Feelin’ Groovy at 25:22.
Goes into Morning Dew.

Nestled in the middle of an incredible Playing in the Band>Dark Star>Morning Dew>Playing in the Band sequence that anticipates the setlist shenanigans of the next couple of years, this also works quite well as a standalone. The tempo of these Dark Stars seems to be getting more deliberate as we get toward the end of 1972. In the initial phase, the band seems to set up an environment as much as anything; one can feel oneself entering a forested landscape or some such thing, if that’s not too fanciful. Garcia cries from the trees with some volume swells, while Godchaux releases rivulets that cascade down the jagged cliff face of Weir’s distorted chording, while Lesh prowls in the underbrush. OK, that is too fanciful! Sue me.

If the music is slow and encompassing, as the intensity increases the effect is massive. By the time we’re four minutes in, it feels like a lot has happened, even though they have not yet forsaken the basic Dark Star pattern. At 4:55 they start to slide down into a little gap, with Garcia playing Dark Star melodies to remind us of the overall concept. Godchaux is using an effect (or an electronic keyboard?) now, and they land on a minor chord at about 5:19, with Lesh seemingly leading the way. A groove bubbles forth, but it subsides by 5:45, where there’s a more pronounced hiatus.

This issues forth in some warblings that seem to portend space. These are drawn out so that, rather than a hiatus, this seems to be the next section of the jam—a meditative series of statements without an underlying groove, but with a cohesive feel nevertheless. All four string players are crafting beautiful melodies here, and this draws up into a kind of peak at about 8:45, then stretches and yawns, and then at 9:12 Lesh suggests the main theme.

There are no takers yet; instead, Garcia and Godchaux start rolling and trilling, almost like the end of a Sputnik; Weir joins with a tremolo, and Lesh succumbs as this reaches a crescendo at 9:21, subsides, crescendos again at 9:32, subsides again, and crescendos again at 9:47. As this last peak tails off, Phil again calls them back at 9:52, and they all slide into the main theme. This is rendered triumphantly, with the band kicking up behind Garcia’s elaborations. They bring it to a peak and let it come down again, keeping this powerful section fairly compact. Garcia is a bit off-pitch on the verse at times, but that doesn’t matter too much, does it? I hope not…

Coming off the verse, they hit the little turnaround and start to build on it, with Kreutzmann providing a forward-leaning beat. Garcia immediately kicks on the wah and start futzing around like he wants to go to a meltdown, but the rest of the band settles into a relaxed groove. Garcia complies by playing some melodic stuff, and they start to build a focused jam with more drawn out statements. Once this gets going, at about 15:25, Garcia starts to lean toward a meltdown again, and Weir seems eager to go along this time. But they aren’t falling back on any formulas, they’re taking their time and maintaining a groove.

Lesh starts double timing at 16:30, but rather than picking up things seem to be coming apart a little, which could portend a meltdown after all. They content themselves for now with a less harmonious jam that again builds in intensity, until at 18:15 Garcia starts a Tiger motif, but this does not last for very long, and he soon shifts to the kind of the kind of thing we’d get in the aftermath of a Tiger. It seems, then, that we’re heading somewhere else.

Even though there was never really a meltdown, the Dead are more or less in “We just played a meltdown” territory as we reach the 20 minute mark. One might expect them to come together for a more mundane jam at this point, then. This doesn’t seem to be happening, however, as Lesh starts booming out chords of doom at 20:50. He’s on his own by 21:10, aside from Weir who stays in for a little while longer, and Kreutzmann who is doing some rather minimal work.

Lesh rather dramatically takes a long breath, and then breaks into the first Philo Stomp at 22:41. Kreutzmann immediately picks it up, and they rock it out. I’ve sometimes wondered why the band doesn’t come together on this more, and this time they do provide some accompaniment, starting at around 23:53. Garcia gets some soulful licks in; by the time Godchaux pitches in at about 24:35, Weir seems to have given up.

Phil finally lets the riff go at 24:55, and they hover around for a bit. Not wanting to let it all just peter out, Lesh kicks up Feelin’ Groovy at 25:22, and the band all comes together again at last. They give it a rather subdued but pretty reading tonight, without trying to drive it over the top. The mood is light; their work on Dark Star is done, and everything feels very relaxed. This plays out by 28:05, and I think it’s Lesh who suggests Morning Dew.

This is part of a classic sequence, and it’s a classic Dark Star. The first section is a real tour de force, with the band weaving a polyphonic spell that nicely showcases the unique power of their playing in this era. The second half is restrained, with neither the meltdown nor the Feelin’ Groovy segment reaching for the kind of intensity that they sometimes achieve. Nevertheless, it’s a very satisfying and engaging piece of music, all in all.

What was said:

Thursday, August 4, 2022

145. 1972-09-27

18106 NJ 30:11

Main theme at :07 and 23:51.
First verse at 24:12.
Goes into Cumberland Blues.

This one starts right off with the main theme; it begins at a deliberate pace, but moves with a confident and subtly swinging gait. It seems to gain momentum as it goes, and maybe even speeds up just a tad in the early minutes (I’m not sure of this). At 2:45 Garcia starts a rolling triplet figure which the band picks up on, and for a while they launch into moments of intensity and then pull back again, ebbing and flowing, but always moving ahead with a sense of determination.

At 4:20 Garcia plays a figure which Godchaux and Weir keep bouncing back to him, while Lesh does his own thing. The framework that has been established allows a lot of interplay and fosters a variety of ideas, while the overall feel remains much the same. Weir is particularly playful tonight, with little slashes and bursts of harmonics abounding. They hit something of a peak approaching and right after the 7 minute mark, culminating at around 7:20; there are hints of an approach to the theme, but they remain unconsummated. But this is very much a Dark Star jam in the sense that the underlying structure is never far from the surface.

At 8:00 Garcia plays a little roll, almost like Sputnik, that may signal a turn away from the main structure. They start to subside into spacier territory, and then at 9:28 Godchaux suggests something with a bouncy and jazzy feel; this is assented to, and a bubbling jam emerges. This dazzling jam is intense but light and mobile, with the instruments firing off toward all points of the compass. (After a couple of peaks, at 15:13 Garcia starts playing the descending melody I pointed out a couple of times recently; I thought maybe it came from another song, but now I think that this is where I remembered it from).

At 16:10 Jerry plays a high, soft melody that signals the end of the jam, and brings them into a minor key and a more meditative space. As they near the 18-minute mark it seems like either a space jam or a drum interlude is in the works. Kreutzmann drops out at 18:49, and they take it down to almost nothing, with Weir playing some pretty chordal stuff while Lesh plays a plodding melody, which Garcia augments with some volume swells. Weir drops out for a bit at 20:18, and the field is left to Garcia and Lesh; the latter hints at a Spanish Jam-type progression for a moment, and at 21:26 you can hear a switch, which I think is Garcia putting on the wah. This suggests that perhaps this will build to a meltdown, but there are no other indications of this as of yet.

This transitional jam extends for quite some time. It’s almost a space jam, but perhaps a little more melodic and structured than the usual space passage. In any case, it’s quite a beautiful segment. Finally, at 23:36 Garcia starts strumming the Dark Star chords to bring us to the theme, which takes us into the verse with little delay. The latter is sung slowly, seeming to derive its character from the quiet jam that immediately preceded it.

As they exit the verse section, Kreutzmann starts a popping backbeat that indicates a return to the lightly swinging mood established in the first jam tonight. This time it’s a little more heavy-footed and emphatic on the beat, but overall once again the feel is relatively light. They work on bringing the energy up without altering the feel, reaching a peak at around 28:30 or so. By 28:50 they’re coming down the other side, and the jam starts to fragment just a little, but they keep more or less the same thing going, until they reach a point where they are pretty clearly pedaling and Lesh finally starts Cumberland Blues.

This is a really fantastic piece of music. It maintains a kind of momentum throughout, and the band never seems like they’re foundering or trying to figure out what to reach for. This one feels a little whimsical at times; it’s not laying out any huge cosmic statements, but it is entirely engaging and satisfying nonetheless, and must be included in the pantheon of worthy Dark Stars.

What was said:

Thursday, July 28, 2022

144. 1972-09-24

2202 Waterbury, CT 34:32 (33:25) (DS 28:28[27:51]>Drums 1:58>DS 4:06)

Main theme at 11:03.
First verse at 11:14.
Tiger at 21:55.
Goes into China Cat Sunflower.

There’s a lot of Weir and Lesh on this recording. Things get off to a bouncy start, with Lesh deviating from the primary pattern fairly quickly while Weir keeps it pumping along. At 2:01 Bob starts to digress a bit himself, throwing in little tremolo runs in between his triad splashes. This intro provides a good example of the band maintaining a groove while each individual plays idiosyncratic and offset lines that would make little sense on their own.

At 3:31 Garcia launches into a series of triplets that culminates at 3:58 with some squalling double stops, and the band pauses a little on the tail end of this. Jerry comes back with some low runs and by 4:55 they’re working toward another of the minor peaks that often occur in the early going. The playing here is somewhat reminiscent of 1969, insofar as there is a rapid succession of dynamic shifts. Lesh brings us into the modern era, though, with one of his repeating jazz licks beginning at 5:22; as is often the case, this comes and goes without too much commentary from his peers, although it all fits together.

At about 6:35 Godchaux briefly switches to the Rhodes, I think, unless he just open the wah-wah pedal he sometimes uses with the piano. In any case, shortly afterward he seems to be back on the regular piano. At 7:27 Garcia starts a windup which brings them to another minor peak at about 7:43, and then the music slides into a more ruminative zone. They start to rise again, but something subtly poignant has entered the jam at this point. At 8:30 there’s a lull, and the phrases come back a little longer and less emphatic until at 9:05 Garcia crests and initiates a line that gestures toward Bright Star, and as he descends and then ascends again the rest of the band drops down to a whisper and the tempo slows; at 10:50 Weir decides it’s time for the theme; Jerry takes it for a couple spins and goes right to the verse, which is softly deliberate this evening.

The second half starts with some heavy and distorted bass to which the others add color. At times it seems Garcia is trying to latch on, and Lesh is changing it up, so a coherent jam is deferred. At around 14:40 Kreutzmann starts to lay down a groove, but the rest of the band comes to a virtual halt. Godchaux and Lesh are signaling their willingness to groove by 15:20, but nothing is coming together. As we get to the 17th minute Garcia has engaged his wah effect, and probably has a meltdown jam in mind. Kreutzmann gets on the toms and gently but emphatically offers the groove again. Weir is scritching, Lesh is trying to groove, and Garcia is indicating a meltdown; Godchaux sides with the weirdos, and Kreutzmann recedes back to the cymbals.

By 18:45 this is starting to coalesce, there is a groove but it’s a pre-meltdown groove. But they seem a bit uncertain with it or, to be more charitable, they are taking their time in any case. And slowly but surely, it is coming together, but Weir drops out at 20:35 and this takes some of the wind out of it, so Jerry gets more Tigerish, since the groove seems to be scotched. When comes back at 20:51 he’s switched to the meltdown team, and this seems to add the needed impetus to move things in some direction. By 21:22 they seem to be driving toward a Tiger, but then they pull back rather suddenly. At 21:55 Garcia goes all in and starts his Tiger roll, and the band follows suit. This Tiger seems a little bit restrained, but it will have to serve.

At 23:45 Godchaux is pounding a repeated note; if they all latch on, this will lead them out of the meltdown, but it doesn’t happen that way, and he finally releases it and a more drawn out expression of the meltdown ethos ebbs into an interstice at 25:00 that Garcia soon fills with a melodic line. Lesh is game, and they duet a little on a mournful melody. By 26:05 the band has arrived at a pretty little jam, and they milk it a little before Garcia starts bending it out of shape and they all start weirding out again.

They’ve left the jam, and they don’t want to go to another meltdown, so they seem to be at a bit of an impasse; they deal with this by stopping, and Kreutzmann is left to fill the gap with a short drum break. This goes on for a couple of minutes until Lesh joins back in, followed in short order by Garcia, and then Godchaux and finally Weir. What we have here is a choppy little jam that gets bouncing along pretty well, with everyone on the same page. They threaten to color outside the lines a few times, but it holds together, with Garcia playing some frenetic runs; as we approach the four minute mark, it start to shift, and somehow they smoothly drop into China Cat Sunflower and the Dark Star is over.

This is a well-known rendition, and it’s far from bad, but it seems to me to lack direction at times in the back half. As always, there is plenty to love here, however. At times they seem to be holding the door open for inspiration, but this can be stated negatively as a reluctance to commit. Either way, it’s another rich and rewarding improvisation, and relative judgments aside, it’s worth spending 35 minutes on.

What was said:

Thursday, July 21, 2022

143. 1972-09-21

150281 Philly 37:18

Main theme at 11:30.
First verse at 12:05.
Tiger at 24:55.
Mind Left Body Jam at 33:49.
Goes into Morning Dew.

A bubbling start with the theme chords and some plaintive Garcia, who at first lays back and adds color, and then at :34 gets mesmerizingly active. This is a classic intro, beautiful and understated, with the vigorous but relaxed feel that they have perfected at this point. The playing is very dynamic with little swells and flurries; a beautifully languid stretch begins at 2:49; Keith seems to be playing with a volume knob somehow here, it sounds like a guitar but I can hear everyone else.

Garcia suddenly gets louder at 4:12 and the band kicks up, rather surprisingly. At 4:34 Jerry states the theme, almost, but he backs off before anyone follows him along that route. Instead they get quiet again, and again Garcia seems to be in the lead at 5:04 as some triplets lead into a more assertive jam section. This reaches a small summit at about 5:42, and then more decisively at 6:05 or so. They are playing with degrees of intensity in the way that they first perfected in 1969, so that the dynamics are shifting quite frequently.

At 7:25 there’s a kind of pause; rather than go to the theme, Jerry plays some rolls, hinting at a minor shading, and starting at 8:05 it is quite reminiscent of Sputnik. Coming out of this, Garcia draws out a feedback shriek from 8:25 all the way up until 8:43, and then comes back at 8:49 with a light tremolo. There are traces of Bright Star at 9:12, and then Garcia starts hinting at the theme, but it is still not time for that.

From 10:12, Weir and Lesh feint back and forth with touches of an out-of-sync funky jam, playfully refusing to commit. Godchaux starts a tremolo at 10:20, and Garcia joins him at 10:25; they draw it out, and Lesh again bounces around with one of his funky licks (10:40) without expecting anyone to follow. As it finally starts to come apart, Garcia enters the breach with the theme at 11:30, and this leads pretty quickly to a confidently perfect reading of the verse.

After the riff there’s a quietly bustling little jungle scene, with Keith laying on the wah; Garcia and Weir start playing somewhat frenetic lines, and a bouncy little jam develops. This comes to a head a little after the 15-minute mark, and then attains a steady simmer. There’s a kind of knotty peak beginning at 15:33 where all the threads come together, and as they come out of this there’s a kind of transition—Garcia disappears at 16:00, and now Godchaux comes to the fore as they play a more subdued version of the preceding jam.

At 16:54 Lesh strikes up one of his funky riffs. It’s always remarkable to me how, without ignoring him, they usually forgo the opportunity to settle into a groove, and the riff recedes without leaving too much of a mark. He brings it back around 17:35, and they rally around him a little before he lets it go again. After a couple minutes this jam starts to feel a little aimless, though…not unpleasant, but exhausting itself nonetheless. And just before we reach the point of exhaustion, Garcia is back, coming in at 19:04, and perhaps heralding more excitement in what follows. He’s got a little wah going, and might have a meltdown in mind.

As we cross the 20-minute mark the intensity is increasing, but gradually at first, and by 21:00 Garcia is flashing some Tiger licks. But they take their time; Godchaux’s wah-wah piano and Weir’s little squalls are flashes of weirdness in a slow burn, with no one in a hurry to bring it to a head. Rather than a Tiger, this is a freaky jam with Tiger-like bits scattered throughout. They seem to have harnessed the power of a meltdown and channeled it into a more consequent and coherent stretch of music.

Finally, however, they seem ready to take the next step at 24:55, and we seem to be headed for a true meltdown here. The Tiger is brief and a little subdued, relative to others, and we reach the other side pretty quickly, into a slow meltdown taking place from around 25:35 to 26:38. At 26:46 Garcia is losing some of the wah, and we are at an inflection point; many Dark Stars would end here, but there is still 10 minutes to go. They ease into a gently twinkling jam, ratified by Phil’s easy melodic line. By 28:20 they could almost be shifting into Morning Dew or Stella Blue, but there is no clear referent here yet. It’s just gentle, melodic Dead, a little bent out of shape for good measure.

At 30:10 Lesh and Weir are adding little syncopated stabs and bending the music further toward something else. 30:50 sees Garcia start a fingerpicked roll, echoed by Lesh. This develops with some gorgeous country licks, and Weir and Lesh pick it up and push it forward. It really snaps together at 32:00, and a new jam emerges. Jerry keeps going around and elaborating his fingerpicked roll with ridiculous facility; at around 33:05, he even strikes a figure where he’s playing an ascending run on the bass strings and an ascending run on the higher strings at the same time. Then he bears down on it and the band kicks it up some more, and at 33:49 they break into the chord pattern known as the Mind Left Body Jam, which last made its appearance in a Dark Star (for the first time) when it was played double-time in the end jam of 1972-04-08. They go around a few more times, and Garcia strikes up Morning Dew.

This is an astounding ending to a gorgeous, magisterial Dark Star. This one is rightly well-known; it’s one of the high points of the entire corpus. It moves slowly compared to some, but there is plenty of excitement to be had, even outside the stellar end jam, for anyone who cares to listen closely.

What was said

Friday, July 15, 2022

142. 1972-09-16

77442 Boston 27:31

Main theme at 10:35.
First verse at 10:49.
Tiger at 21:25.
Goes into Brokedown Palace.

There isn’t a great recording of this. I went with the matrix because it gives us slightly more Phil Lesh, but the biggest problem with all available options is that he’s too low in the mix. As others have pointed out, Ned Lagin is here tonight, but not particularly audible. And Garcia has the Alligator back.

The Bostonians are audibly pleased about the song selection as Dark Star begins. These days Dark Stars generally commence with some kind of reference to the main theme, and we get that here with Godchaux in the lead before Garcia starts his line; this one kicks off with a more ruminative feel than the last did. There’s an intensification leading to a small peak at about 2:40, and then they recede into a beautiful marshiness. At 3:22 Garcia starts hinting, and not for the last time tonight, at the little descending lick that I pointed out last time as something I associated with another song; I wonder now if it wasn’t just other Dark Stars of which I was thinking.

At 5:00 and environs we’re immersed in a bog that is glittering with starlight. From 5:55 Godchaux’s twinkling piano echoes Garcia’s high descending runs, and Lesh can just be heard underpinning them with a repeating riff. As we get to the 7 minute mark there begins an uptick in intensity, but with the same overall feel. They keep pushing it a little at a time, and it starts to transform a little and acquire an edge. Kreutzmann bangs the snare with a lagging backbeat gives the music a kind of lurch, and the polyphonic twinkling of the early going is transmogrified into a loping jam. As the jam starts tapering off at around 10:20, Lesh picks up the theme and they smoothly glide into it; there’s a marked slowing of the tempo at 10:41, and they promptly arrive at the verse.

Garcia comes out of the post-verse lick with a high peel-off; this is a move that will become a trademark of his playing years later, but which we encounter less frequently in 1972. They enter a marshy, pondering scene that is reminiscent of the early part of this Dark Star. Lesh is in the lead here, more or less, with Garcia adding color with his volume knob. Weir weaves in some chordal stuff; these sections are very cohesive tonight, even when they’re searching around. The crowd incongruously claps along a bit. Godchaux comes in and from about 14:19 he and Garcia knit together some Sputnik-like rolls, and as it gets spacier the audience hoots and hollers.

At 15:30 now, it is sounding more and more like a space jam. The band is really taking its time, while the audience seems to be almost inexplicably fired up by this! Maybe they just really dig space. As we arrive at the 17:45 mark Garcia is starting to hint at a buid-up to a meltdown. He starts playing some rolls with the wah effect creeping in, and a Tiger seems to be in the offing. Meanwhile, Godchaux strikes an ominous groove at 18:31 with a few well-placed notes. In typical fashion, he doesn’t exactly settle into this groove, but he does start to build on it as Garcia pushes toward the Tiger. Kreutzmann and Lesh are picking it up, and the band is simultaneously moving toward a meltdown and a funky groove.

At 20:45 Garcia still has the wah pinned, but he catches the beat for a bit here before going back to a Tiger pattern. The Tiger finally comes to a head starting at about 21:25, and at 21:40 Garcia seems satisfied—he groans out some lugubrious tones as Kreutzmann and Godchaux strike up a lilting groove, and soon they all come together and drop right into an upbeat jam. 23:35: I think Weir and Godchaux both have a wah-wah on now, it’s difficult to be certain. Garcia is playing a frenetic line and it really gets cooking. He gets more repetitive with it, and then Godchaux locks in with him at 24:50 and they bring it to a peak that goes on for a good minute. This is really cooking, and if Lesh were mixed better it would be even better, because he is really going at it here too. At 25:52 the jam winds down into an intermediate space, and after some thoughtful throat-clearing Garcia takes them into a beautiful Brokedown Palace.

This is perhaps not the most ambitious Dark Star, but it is nevertheless an excellent rendition. In the midst of a golden period, this is less well-known than some of its contemporaries, but it is a wonderful piece of music; by turns beautiful and frenetic, it has a lot of force and a lot of range. It is a shame there isn’t a better recording, but what we have here is sufficient evidence of a damn good Dark Star.

What was said:

Thursday, July 7, 2022

141. 1972-09-10

22793 Hollywood 35:21 (DS 32:18, Drums 1:33, DS 1:30).

Main theme at 18:42.
First verse at 19:02.
Goes into Jack Straw.

David Crosby apparently sat in for this. I can’t really hear him, or else my mind can only take in so many instruments; at times I think I’ve got him, but then it dissolves into another instrument and I’m not entirely sure if it was there. Weir is very loud in the left channel, and is playing a lot of aggressive riffing stuff that takes this Dark Star in unwonted directions; I considered whether this was perhaps Crosby, but it doesn’t seem likely. It seems more likely that they adjusted their approach a bit due to the presence of a guest, but I’m pretty sure that’s Weir playing guitar over there.

Right off the bat Weir and Lesh are very upfront with the chord pattern, suggesting the theme with a chunky vamp on the chords until Garcia comes in at :19 with some high leads. There’s a bouncy and playful cadence to everything that feels quite different already. There are several feints away from the Dark Star pattern. At around 2:46 Weir starts a bluesy ascending/descending riff that Garcia picks up for a moment, but it doesn’t stick. Then at 3:25 Garcia’s triplets instigate a little frenetic jam, but this is also short-lived.

At 4:05, they seem to be at a crossroads and they start a jam with a minor feel. This pays out until 4:55 when Garcia switches gears with a Sputnik-like sequence that brings everyone together on a minor key thing. At 5:25 Garcia starts toying with a descending sequence that he sometimes plays in a different song, but I can’t remember which one for the life of me. Weir and Godchaux echo him with some arpeggios and there is a pretty section here. By 6:30 Garcia is again playing Sputnik stuff, and the others echo him with more swirling arpeggios. This comes down to almost nothing just after the seven minute mark, and Lesh and Kreutzmann decide to establish a light and jazzy jam, which Weir picks up on quickly.

Garcia is mostly laying out here until about 7:48, when he comes back with some chords, and then he throws in that descending line again at 8:01—I could swear it’s from something else! This keeps coalescing into a moody jam in the neighborhood of E minor. This seems to be coming to an end around 9:50; it eases into something else in A, with Garcia leading the way with some rolling chord stuff. It comes to a head at around 11:25 with everyone coming together on some bouncy chording, moving to a little peak that starts at about 11:45. This keeps rolling for a while, and Garcia is very busy, hitting a funky lick at 12:14 that he rides until 12:30.

By 12:55 Jerry seems to be starting a new thing, but it’s just the last thing winding down. The riff elongates and turns elastic, and then they leave to Phil and Kreutzmann for a little while from 13:30. Finally the others start to return at 15:00, and there is another bouncy jam. Weir’s harmonics at 15:23 really get me wondering if this hasn’t been Crosby the whole time but, if so, where is Weir? The jam starts to meander a little now, but it’s still percolating along pretty well, and it starts to gather steam again until by 17:25 they’re cooking again.

Starting at 17:55 I can briefly think I’m hearing three guitars, but inevitably I lose it again. At 18:34 there is a seemingly telepathic shift among the instruments in the direction of the main theme (another reason the left-hand guitar has to be Weir!). Garcia brays out the verse (rather shakily, at first) and the lefthand guitar is right on top of the shift to E minor on the second line, and takes its usual part on the post-verse riff…it has to be Weir, but his playing has at times been unusual tonight.

We descend into space after the verse. I can hear four instruments here (plus drums) until 21:06, when I finally start to think there’s another guitar. I lose Keith for a while though, but then from 23:10 I think I have them all…that’s about the extent to which I’m willing to strain my brain, which seemingly wasn’t designed to hear five instruments. The space gets kind of intense by about 24:45, and Garcia seems to be pushing them toward a meltdown, which arrives at around 25:25. I wouldn’t label this a Tiger, but it’s in the ballpark. This turns into a kind of hybrid of a meltdown and a frenetic jam, and by 26:45 Lesh and Kreutzmann are pushing them toward the latter. Garcia and Weir are keeping it weird, though; at 27:40, they start edging a little closer to terra firma and the band is banging away on a really freaky jam. There are hints of Me and My Uncle throughout from both Lesh and Garcia.

By 29:30 this all seems to be cooling down as they return to earth, but also simultaneously start to disperse a bit. But then they pull together again and seem to be driving toward some kind of peak until at 31:30 they begin to disperse again. They do a little fade in favor of Kreutzmann who finally takes over at 32:18.

Lesh comes back in after a minute and a half, and the others trickle in for some brief noodling, and once again it is possible to make out a third guitar. This doesn’t really amount to anything before Weir starts Jack Straw.

This is a really cool rendition. The stuff before the verse is very groove-oriented; in that respect, even though I can’t hear Crosby, it reminds me a bit of some of the previous versions we’ve considered where the band accommodated other musicians. In this case, the approach proves to be very effective, as there is a lot of rather stellar interplay among the musicians. The way another groove-based jam forms out of space in the second half is something to behold, and the definite highlight here. I really like this one!

What was said:

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

140. 1972-08-27

16582 Veneta 32:20 (31:22 actual)

Main theme at 1:04 and 12:15.
First verse at 12:35.
Tiger at 29:17.
Goes into El Paso.

This one gets directly to business with a few runs through the main theme, after which they dig right into the two-chord Dark Star pattern and start mining for gold. At 2:57 the music takes a subtle turn into a moodier direction, and the two chords start to recede a little. Now there are waves coming in and drawing out, and the music is quietening a bit although if anything getting more intense. Keith is nicely audible as he releases little cascades that echo Garcia’s statements and propel them forward. The latter’s pinch harmonics at 5:53 begin his most extended train of thought yet, culminating at 6:12 in a descending figure beginning on A, repeated four times, which feels kind of like a stripped-down version of Bright Star.

Lesh walks Garcia up to another high flourish at 6:41, which brings this segment to its peak of mellow intensity; something else needs to happen now, as it seems they’ve now gone as far as they’re going to get with this current avatar of the group mind. They quiet down a little and at 6:54 Garcia starts worrying at permutations of the main theme in the upper register, but they’re not going there yet. At 7:39 Kreutzmann triggers Garcia’s triplets that usher in the next section, and there’s a new sense of urgency in the music. It is getting louder and more forceful; Godchaux is shoving a little, and Weir’s guitar squalls.

Kreutzmann drives this section, alternately hanging back and pushing with his snare, until at 8:24 he locks in with Garcia and they bring this section to a peak. At 9:08 Garcia starts signaling for the main theme, but no one is in a hurry—they all seem to know where they’re going, and they take their time, and there’s another little peak at about 10:08. As this is winding down, at 10:24 Garcia trades Sputnik licks with Godchaux, and then they paddle in place for a bit, still not ready to give in to the theme.

Starting at 11:31, there is some madness! Garcia briefly stabs out a fragment of a rock and roll riff, then bursts into a high rolling figure (11:49) which Weir and Godchaux underscore, and then Keith and Jerry lock into a descending line that puts an explanation point on the preceding matters and takes them into the theme at last. This leads to the verse very quickly; they don’t pull back on the tempo as much as they sometimes do, and the verse seems to clop right along.

As they return at 13:56, Keith seems to want to play something with a laid back jazz feel, and the rest pick up on what he’s putting down, building out a groove until Garcia comes in at 14:31 with some eerie volume swells. Lesh handles the melody here, with Garcia providing atmosphere and the rest grooving. At 15:28 Jerry starts to build a line, and they maintain the easy bounce as he elaborates.

At 16:27 Godchaux decides that it needs to get weirder, and as he throws in some stranger notes everyone responds as the groove starts to stretch and warp. At 16:50 Garcia starts an uneasy vamp, and Weir and Godchaux egg him on. At 17:22 Jerry hints at a transition to atonality, and perhaps a meltdown. Phil seems game at first, but then at 17:37 he changes their trajectory by hammering the A, the tonal center of Dark Star, and everyone rallies around as they come to a little peak, which then disperse into a frenetic jam in A.

This has run its course by 19:45, and we shift into a section with a Slipknot or perhaps Stronger Than Dirt flavor. This is starting to cohere nicely, but they don’t see a future in it and by 21:10 we’re down to Kreutzmann and Lesh. The latter blithely riffs away for a while until at 22:13 Godchaux joins in. They seem to be laying the basis for another vigorous jam, which is ratified by Garcia at 22:51, as he puts in some rather Weir-like high chords at first, then wriggles into a profuse lead line. As Weir returns, Garcia seems torn between keeping them in a funky jam and leading them into a meltdown, but the resulting hybrid seems to be ratcheting into weird-out territory.

Yet, it stays funky, largely thanks to Lesh, who eschews the monster movie chords and keeps walking briskly along, and Kreutzmann who maintains the backbeat. As we hit the 27 minute mark they start to break up the groove, and a meltdown seems imminent. But the groove will not die so easily; at 27:32, Garcia in one ear and Godchaux in the other whip up some fusion, which is more or less what you get when you cross a Grateful Dead meltdown with a strong groove.

At 28:49 Jerry seems to be definitely moving them toward a Tiger. He gives up on consensus at 29:17, unleashing the Tiger and letting the chips fall where they may. They don’t take it over the top or linger over it; at 29:58 Garcia’s done with it, and he starts playing some arpeggios, which Keith picks up, and then Lesh starts playing some slow melodic stuff which takes them into space. This briefly gains intensity as Phil throws in some distorted chords, but they seem to be ready to end it and finally Garcia starts playing Morning Dew, then he suddenly aborts as they go into El Paso. I had a hard time determining exactly what happened here—in contrast to the 21st, there wasn’t a strong veto, and Weir’s suggestion of El Paso at first seemed just as tentative as Jerry’s Morning Dew proposal, but in any case it is the former which carries the day.

It is rather difficult to evaluate this one, particularly because it is impossible not to be mindful, as I review it, of its reputation. It is certainly a great version, and they are in a peak time for Dark Star, so that is not said lightly. This is a version with lots of power and beauty, although it has a bit less depth and variety than the very top renditions of the year. Even though it is 31 minutes long, I sometimes am left feeling like something else should have happened in the second half, because this is rather groove-oriented in a way, and not that exploratory. I’d put this just below the top rank of 1972, in any case, but not by much.

What was said

Thursday, June 23, 2022

139. 1972-08-24

156469 BCT 27:08

Main theme at :9, 10:23.
First verse at 11:06.
Tiger at 20:10.
Goes into Morning Dew.

The second BCT Dark Star also begins with a few runs through the theme before getting down to business. At :36 Garcia asserts the high A gently but firmly, then some eerie and bendy stuff follows. The intro so far seems a bit more laidback than the one on the 24th with the band seeming at ease and in no hurry. At 3:33 they seem almost ready to stop, but it flows along at a trickle with Jerry laying out for a bit. He returns with some very quiet flurries at 4:29, and starts to ease his way back in while Weir takes advantage of the space by playing some tremolo.

At 5:17 some tacit signal seems to have them turning up the intensity again, and at 5:51 Phil starts riffing away as he often does. Weir clips along with some treble chops, Garcia throws in some pinch harmonics, and then they’re on to something else as a frenetic jam seems to be building. This gets underway in earnest at around 7:20; the band still somehow sounds relaxed as they dash through it. At 8:26 Lesh brings back a jazzy riff again and everyone else begins to draw out their lines a little more, bringing the music to a little peak before drawing back at 9:03 to bring the jam to a close.

Now there are some serious main theme vibes, and Lesh makes it explicit at 9:27, but instead of following him there they sink into a big D minor space, to which Lesh happily follows. This is short lived, and all this still seems like foreplay for the theme. Sure enough, at 10:23 Garcia brings it home. Soon after, we pull up at the verse, which is taken at a deliberate pace.

The riff issues forth into a Lesh-led segment, not quite a space nor yet quite a jam. This feels very transitional, in any case. Soon Garcia and Weir are emitting moans, and Keith I think has something electronic going again. At 14:19 Garcia starts the kind of sequences that generally seem preparatory to a meltdown or atonal jam. They keep it slow and mysterious for now, though, and this builds on what has preceded it such that it adds up to a rather remarkable segment.

At 15:59 Garcia seems to add a layer of wah, strongly hinting that he sees a meltdown in the future. This is still really spooky, but there seems to be a slow and steady ratcheting of intensity underway. At 17:09 Weir has taken the lead with some piercing notes, and Garcia starts playing some pre-Tiger stuff. Whatever Keith is doing, he is doing it sort of sparingly, but it is wild, and very effective.

At 18:12 they are driving toward some kind of peak, still atonal and wild. This seems to come to a peak at about 18:40 or so, and although I wouldn’t quite call this a Tiger it’s a similar idea. Weir is still very assertive here with the co-lead. By 19:30 they seem to have gone off the boil and the jam gets even stranger and spookier. At 20:05 it seems clear that Garcia still has a Tiger in his sights, and in fact I’ll mark the start of this one (somewhat arbitrarily, as always) at 20:10. Tiger comes to a peak by 21:02 and then we come down the other side; Garcia doesn’t stop, but rolls into a Sputnik-type segment as he clicks off the wah pedal.

The music is now rather scattered and sparse. Keith seems to have returned to a regular piano. At 22:02 Lesh starts another bouncing riff, and they seem ready to latch onto this one and ride it back to terra firma. This is the riff that is the basis of what is generally called the Elastic Ping Pong jam (thanks to Mr. Rain for noticing this for us!), about which more can be read in the Lexicon thread pinned to the top of the page. By 23:00 or so it’s bounding along very nicely, and the music is gelling. This one keeps rolling along for a while, and somehow it even seems to have some chord changes that they more or less come to an understanding about.

By 25:20 there are signs of encroaching disarray, but they hold it together a little longer until finally, at 25:40, succumbing to entropy. At 26:00 Weir is playing some kind of arpeggiated figure but this peters out, and Garcia does a little volume knob fiddle work while they all sort of wait around for a new idea. Although this doesn’t feel very stable, it’s quite beautiful nevertheless. Just after our track ends at 27:08, Phil starts Morning Dew this time, as if in recompense for the 2th (“See, Jerry? We don’t hate you!”).

What we have here is another top flight Dark Star. As with the previous one from this run, there’s a lot of weirdness and atonality after the verse. Also similarly to that one, it’s all totally engrossing. Improvised music does not get much better than this!

What was said

Thursday, June 16, 2022

138. 1972-08-21

139581 BCT 27:38

Main theme at :07 and 9:20.
First verse at 9:51.
Tiger at 16:15.
Goes into El Paso.

In August of 1972, right in the thick of the peak era for Dark Star, the Dead played two outstanding renditions at the Berkeley Community Theater. The first of these charges right out of the gate with a statement of the theme, and then at :21 Garcia starts to travel and the band goes to it. All the instrumentalists are nice and loud in the mix here, and they’re all working hard right from the beginning. They maintain a kind of equilibrium until 1:22 when Jerry goes high and distinguishes himself from the pack a bit.

The band ebbs and flows—but mostly flows—in waves of energetic sound. There is a continuous melodic dialogue going on across the various instruments: at 3:10 Garcia pauses on a B, and Weir interjects a triplet passage from Bb to B before Jerry picks it up again. At 4:34 Godchaux is in the lead, and then at 4:47 Garcia bursts out again. Most remarkably, in the space between about 5:00 and 5:25 the lead line rolls around among all four instrumentalists.

By 6:15 they are starting to converge and the band drives to a little peak, cresting at around 6:35. At 7:00 a little roll keeps going back and forth from Godchaux to Garcia, while Weir and Lesh punctuate. Jerry starts double timing at around 7:42, and then the music scatters…listen from 8:02, has Keith switched to an electronic instrument, or there an effect on the piano? There’s a little roar at 8:08 like he’s scratched the piano strings and it’s been run through an effects processor of some kind. At 8:43 the music quickly starts to swell, peaking at 9:01; Garcia plays a little figure (AAA GDE) that is somewhat reminiscent of Bright Star…they coast down the other side into the theme at 9:20 and cruise into the verse, bringing to a close an incredible intro section.

Coming out of the verse the music gets intense more or less immediately. They play some blocky swells, and then split off at oblique angles to one another, and it sounds like they are going straight to some kind of meltdown. At 13:23 Garcia starts playing a Tiger-like line, only with a cleaner tone. At 13:42 Godchaux takes off on a crazy trip around the keyboard; he again sounds like he’s playing with some kind of effects.

As Garcia and Keith zip around, Weir somehow accompanies them in a cogent way that keeps it all together. Lesh is likewise rambling around, but he starts putting out a groove at 14:32, from which he sometimes departs and returns. But at 15:30 a new thing seems to be on the horizon; Lesh’s groove is gone, and centrifugal forces seem to be dissolving the center. Then at 16:01 Lesh starts stabbing at the groove again, and Garcia’s frantic line seems to respond to it, until it suddenly veers into Tiger territory at 16:15. This time Keith goes along with Jerry, to thunderous effect.

Now we’re in a scary atonal jam; at 17:07 Garcia starts hammering a note and everyone joins him, taking the jam to a new peak of intensity. This crests and then starts to unspool, winding down at 18:18 into a little space where mostly Weir, Garcia and Kreutzmann are left to hold things together. At 19:39 Garcia starts playing a little melody; and for a moment it seems like they’re going to move into saner territory, but the weirdness still has the upper hand. Garcia at first succumbs, then gets melodic again at 20:25. Finally at 20:45, he starts playing Morning Dew. Weir tries to go along with him but no one else is having it. He goes through the intro riff twice and then again succumbs to the spacey undertow.

At 21:50 Godchaux is playing a little up and down figure…this doesn’t catch on at first, but then it becomes a new center of gravity, and they drive to a peak, which crests at 22:16 and then rather quickly disperses. Coming out the other end, Keith is still in charge, and he lightens it up a little as Lesh jumps in with a bouncy riff at 22:33. Keith and Phil lay down a base for a little while, and Weir trickles in. At 24:57 Jerry finally comes back, and they ride a bright and bouncy groove for a while. At 27:25 they seem to have had enough of this, and they trickle down more or less to a halt; Garcia starts comping a little in a way that suggests El Paso, so Weir kicks into it and the Dark Star is over.

All I can think to say in summation is, what an amazing band! Here we have an absolutely magnificent Dark Star. Before the verse they execute some of the most incredible improvising in the classic Dark Star mode that we have yet heard, and then after they bring their more recent harsh and atonal approach to perhaps its most satisfying development to date. This is the real stuff!

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Wednesday, June 8, 2022

137. 1972-07-26

87034 Portland, OR 30:47

Main theme at :51 and 9:19.
First verse at 9:45.
Tiger at 24:35.
Main theme at 27:57.
Second verse at 29:14.
Goes into Comes a Time.

This one starts with a chugging statement of the main chords. Garcia starts to tentatively cast about at around :24; at :51 he springboards off a single time through the theme, still taking his time, lightly soloing over the springy two chord cushion. The intensity slowly builds here, with the band sounding rather mournful. Garcia’s choppy triplets beginning at 3:22 are subtly mirrored by Weir. Jerry pierces the heavens at 3:43, and then immediately reappears at the lower end of his range. At 3:53 he plays a triangular little chordal figure that will reappear, most prominently toward the end of this rendition.

At 3:43 Garcia’s downwardly cascading line pools and then swells and ascends, and they hit a little peak at about 5:06 that’s drawn out until 5:20, at which point they regroup. Garcia takes advantage of the lull to muse about on the low strings again, and Weir pushes a little but draws back, as they maintain the ruminative feel, luxuriating in the beauty of this intro segment. A minor peak swells and recedes just before the 7 minute mark, and then it fragments again.

At 7:08 Lesh decides it’s time for E minor, and there is the barest suggestion of one of his jazzy patterns as Garcia kicks into a roll. Then at 8:02 the latter begins playing a chordal figure again, developing the idea first broached at 3:53; this hints at the chordal vamp Jerry plays as the introduction to Bird Song in this era, then builds into its own little jam which culminates with Jerry playing with the theme melody beginning at 8:50, and getting more explicit until at 9:19 he lets it fly in the high register. At 9:41 he brings it down to the midrange but, instead of playing the theme again, he starts singing the verse.

The music breaks up almost immediately out of the turnaround, with Kreutzmann’s toms taking the lead. Everything else drops out as Garcia accompanies him with some volume swells. As these fade out we seem to be headed into a drum break, but Phil and Jerry keep puttering along; the bass settles into a bouncy groove and Garcia eases out, with Godchaux now accompanying Lesh and Kreutzmann. Lesh builds a head of steam, playing some stabbing chords, and Weir joins them at 14:34, with Garcia jumping in at 14:52 as a rock jam begins to take shape.

It keeps growing, and soon they are grooving along with abandon, creating a scene that is very different from the introductory segment. The jam keeps getting more and more exciting, and there’s a bit of a peak around the 18 minute mark, and then they start to tail off a little. At 18:35 Garcia brings back the triangular chordal figure again, and then there is a kind of centrifugal scattering as Kreutzmann again comes to the fore, bashing the toms as Garcia spits some bluesy leads.

At 19:55 Garcia kicks on the wah, pointing them toward a meltdown, and Weir duly starts scritching. Lesh adds some doomy pronouncements, but the direction is uncertain as Garcia pulls back into more circumspectly melodic territory, adhering to the meltdown but resisting a full press toward the Tiger. They opt for spaciness here, until at 24:05, with no center to the thing at all, Garcia starts plunging toward the Tiger at last. This winds up a somewhat subdued beast, as they don’t attempt to bring it to a raging peak. Then at 25:13 Lesh’s ominous tones start to edge toward something resembling a groove, if a jagged one. This scatters again at 26:10; a few second later Garcia strikes up a kind of funhouse Sputnik. The tempo soon retards and the band again descends into chaos. They again pick it up and then retard (27:44) in an even more exaggerated fashion, until at 27:57 Garcia lurches into the theme leads us back to terra firma. To top it all off, we are treated to a rare second verse, which Garcia has almost forgotten at this point (“Daarrirror shatters”). They seem unsure what to do after this, so Jerry just starts singing Comes a Time, which takes a little while to coalesce but turns into a lovely version.

This is one hell of a great Dark Star. The first section is almost painfully beautiful, there is a rollicking jam after the verse, and a chaotic meltdown section leads to a triumphant return to the theme; this is followed by the first appearance of the second verse since May 4th, and the last until New Year’s Eve 1981! It’s difficult to say what more we could ask for.

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Lexicon: Themes and Modular Jams

Here is a key to some of the terminology we will be using in our exploration of Dark Star. There are several themes that reappear in various...